The Dying of the Light ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The cemetery was a vast city of the dead—also a place of refuge for the indigent, those individuals of both genders that used to be called bums or hoboes. One of them lately in residence was the young female indigent named Vicki-Vicki. Like dozens of others, she hid herself among the bushes and trees and gravestones (hid because she wasn’t supposed to be there) and slept and dreamed and performed bodily functions, including sexual congress with any man possessing the money to pay her. Others like her would pass in and out of her life—speak to her or give her a morsel of food or a pill or a needle—but after they had gone she would barely remember them because her mind was not able to grasp things the way it once did.
The long summer was over. September had passed into October, and the nights were getting cold. Winter was approaching as certain as death. For Vicki-Vicki and others like her, the freezing days and nights without end were as frightening as anything they had ever known.
But winter was still to come. Now it was October and the days without rain were still warm. Vicki-Vicki washed up at one of the ornate angel fountains not far from the front gate. Always she kept her eyes and ears open always for people. She would run if she saw anybody approaching, but if she didn’t have a chance to run she would pretend to belong there as if she had just stopped by on her way someplace else.
She dipped her arms to the elbow and shivered at the chill; brought her wet hands to her cheeks and trailed them down to her neck and chest. Some people never bothered to wash themselves at all but she wasn’t one of those. She liked the feel of the clean water against her skin and wished she might take off all her clothes and immerse herself in it and then sit naked on the rim of the fountain and let the wind and the sun dry her.
She heard a voice and, looking up, saw the face of the stone angel eight feet above her.
“Did you say something to me?” she asked the stone angel.
“I asked you who you are.”
“I’m nobody,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“You must have a name.”
“My name no longer matters. If I was sure I even had a name, I would try to forget it.”
“How long since you’ve eaten?” the angel asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not hungry.”
“This is a terrible life you’ve chosen for yourself.”
“Why don’t you go back home?”
“I wouldn’t even if I could.”
“It’s going to be a long, hard winter,” the angel said.
“Aren’t they all?”
“They’ve called in extra guards for tonight. You know what that means.”
“They’ll crack my skull with a stick,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“And then they’ll most likely throw you in jail.”
“I’ll make sure they don’t find me.”
“Better get out now while you can.”
“Where can I go?”
But now the angel had turned back into a mute piece of stone and wasn’t answering any questions.
A funeral procession was turning in at the gate. Vicki-Vicki ran and hid herself among the trees.
The sky became cloudy and the air cooler. Soon it would be night. She was scared at the thought of the coming raid. She knew of at least two people who had been knocked senseless during these raids. She could hide herself and hope she wasn’t found, but it would be better if she went to the city and got a room for the night. If only she had some money.
A man owed her money for services rendered, but she couldn’t remember his name or his face. He wore a long coat and had a tattoo on his arm. That was the only thing she could remember about him, but now she couldn’t even remember what the tattoo looked like. If she saw a man with a tattoo on his arm, she’d know if it was the same man.
Then she remembered his name was Lesley, or at least that’s what people called him. Most of the people who lived the way she lived didn’t use their real names because they were hiding out and, anyway, they were ashamed.
Lesley had been rough with her. She had been with him two times. At first when she saw him she thought he was good-looking with his pale skin and dark hair, but he had treated her so badly that any good impression she had formed of him was gone.
She was lying on her back on the one of the graves, imagining, as she had so many times before, what it was like to be dead and buried underneath the ground, when she heard somebody cough nearby. Startled, she pulled herself to a sitting position. Twenty feet away was the old woman she knew as Arlene. Arlene had just done her business on the ground and was pulling her pants up.
“Hey, you!” Vicki-Vicki said.
Arlene let out a little yelp and laughed, embarrassed that she could be scared so easily. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. I remember. How are you?”
“So are we all,” Arlene said.
“You should try to get behind a tree to do that.”
“What difference does it make? I’ve lost any modesty I ever had.”
“Do you have anything to eat in that bag you carry?”
“If I did, I’d eat it myself.”
“I heard there’s going to be a raid tonight.”
“Who told you that?” Arlene asked.
“A stone angel.”
“Do you think that’s a reliable source?”
“The same as hearing it from God.”
“God don’t speak to me anymore,” Arlene said. “Did I tell you I used to be very beautiful girl?”
“We had money. We belonged to a country club. I used to be written up in the society columns.”
“What happened?” Vicki-Vicki asked.
“I was done in, as we all are.”
“Have you seen that man Lesley around?”
“Lesley? I don’t think I know him.”
“He wears an army coat and he’s got a tattoo on his arm.”
“Oh, yeah. What do you want with that bum?”
“Have you seen him?”
“No, I ain’t. If I’d seen him, I’d try to forget it.”
“He owes me money. If I can get the money he owes me, I can get a room in town tonight.”
“Whereabouts in town?”
“The Rainbow Hotel.”
“Oh, that’s a terrible dive,” Arlene said.
“It’s cheap, though.”
“If you get the money for a room, how about takin’ me along? It’s two for the price of one. It’s been a long time since I slept in a real bed.”
“Not if I don’t find Lesley.”
“That ain’t his real name. That’s just what people call him.”
“I don’t care what his real name is.”
“Hey, I just remembered!” Arlene said. “I’ve got some crackers here that ain’t too stale.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a small pack of restaurant crackers and, tearing the cellophane, took out one for herself and handed the rest to Vicki-Vicki.
Vicki-Vicki nibbled the cracker, finding the taste unfamiliar, and looked off into the distance.
“That angel told me I should go home before winter comes,” she said.
“Well, why don’t you go, then?” Arlene asked.
“My mother’s a drunk and a whore. She beats me. She held me down once and shaved my head. I had to go to school like that.”
“If you was my daughter, I’d treat you better than that.”
“I’m tired of living this way, though.”
“How long has it been?”
“I don’t know. About a year, I guess.”
She ate all the crackers and then she laid on her back on the gently sloping hill and went to sleep. When she awoke, Arlene was gone and it was getting dark. Now she would never find Lesley.
She went to the oldest part of the cemetery with the biggest trees and the oldest graves. Some of the graves were so old that the writing on the stones was too dim to read. There were ghosts flying around, she knew, but she wasn’t afraid of them now, if she ever had been.
Some of the old monuments and aboveground crypts were close together with only two feet or so of space between them. She found a cozy niche where a lot of blown leaves had collected. She burrowed into the leaves like an animal, lay on her back and covered herself up. The leaves had a pleasant smell and she was still able to breathe. It was probably as good a hiding place as any she would find.
She lay very still and breathed deeply. She could see all the way to the tops of the trees forty or fifty feet above her head and beyond that the dark sky. A ghost floated over her head, first one way and then the other, but she didn’t mind it.
The crackers she ate had only made her hungrier. That’s the thing about eating: the more you eat the more you want. If she just stopped eating altogether, she would no longer want to eat and then die.
She slept and awoke to the sound of men’s voices. There would be six or eight men making a sweep of the cemetery. They’d round up all the people like her they could find and call the police to come and get them in a big wagon. Anybody who resisted might end up with a broken arm or a cracked skull.
The voices of the men came closer. They talked and laughed as if they were having a good time. The most fun they ever had. One of them whistled shrilly. It was a game to them.
She was safe. They’d never find her in her hiding place. She’d been through it before. You’re not as afraid the second time as the first.
The leaves crackled near her head. Footsteps. Someone was standing over her. She held her breath, willing the blood to stop flowing in her veins.
“Come on out of there!” came a commanding male voice.
Somebody reached down and swept the leaves away from her face. She pulled herself to a sitting position and looked up into a face she couldn’t see very well. She thought for a moment it was Lesley come to pay her the money he owed her.
“I didn’t do anything!” was all she could think to say.
“You’re trespassing!” the voice said.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Magic,” he said. “You can’t be in the cemetery after it closes or you’re going to jail.”
“What do you think you’re doing here, anyway?” he asked.
“I was just taking a nap.”
“Don’t you have a home?”
“I had a home.”
“If the others know you’re here, they won’t be so gentle.”
“I’ll leave. I promise.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he said.
“You want to kiss me?” she asked.
“Hardly. I won’t take you in this time if you promise to leave and don’t come back. It’s not safe here for people like you. You’ll freeze to death out here in the winter.”
“All right. I’ll go. I promise.”
“Go to one of the shelters in town. There are people there who can help you.”
He handed her a paper sack. She didn’t know what was in it but she took it from him anyway.
“If I see you here again,” he said, “I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.”
He took off the jacket he was wearing and dropped it on the ground beside her. Then he was gone.
In the bag were a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a little bottle of orange juice. She ate the sandwich and drank the juice, too fast, and when she was finished she thought she was going to be sick, but she waited without moving and the sickness subsided.
She stood up and put the jacket on. It was gray, waist-length on a man but far too big for her, going halfway to her knees, and it still retained the warmth of his body. She leaned her cheek against the collar and absorbed the jacket’s odors: cigarette smoke and something else that she didn’t recognize.
When the wind blew, she could still hear the sound of his voice, as if he hadn’t left her in the dark. She wondered where he was now and if he really would remember her, as he said he would. She wondered what his name was but, more than anything else, she wondered if the stone angel had sent him.
Copyright © 2017 Allen Kopp